DES MOINES—Former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer struggled to be heard above the din in Barack Obama's East Locust Street campaign headquarters, but his message came through loud and clear.
After all the money, the ads, the robocalls, the rallies, the bus tours, Oprah, and the diner chats over the past year, the pitched battle for the hearts and minds—and votes—of caucusgoing Democrats in Iowa remains a dead heat among Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards.
So pollsters, pundits, and prognosticators, take note: In handicapping the race going into Thursday's caucuses, you can choose among two predictions, Fischer says: "tied or wrong."
That is not to say that Fischer, a lawyer, and the rest of the Obama camp didn't welcome the Des Moines Register's latest poll out on New Year's Day that showed the Illinois senator opening up a 7-percentage-point lead over Clinton and 8-point-lead over Edwards. But all the top contenders can cite polls that give them the edge or at least confirm Fischer's three-way-tie assessment.
So with the caucuses now just hours away—and the race on the GOP side between top contenders Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney apparently tightening—candidates have fanned out across the state in search of last-minute converts. (And the Register's poll, conducted by J. Ann Selzer, says there are plenty of voters out there still susceptible to persuasion.)
Clinton is hopscotching on her "Pick a President" tour, Obama is holding "Stand for Change" rallies, and Romney is shopping his "Strong America" message. Clinton supporter Ted Danson was spotted here last night, and rocker John Mellencamp is appearing tonight with Edwards, who will wind up a 36-hour campaign marathon.
Huckabee, who maintained a 6-point lead over Romney in the Register's poll, again trotted out action star Chuck Norris, and this week in one of the more bizarre days on the campaign trail, the former Arkansas governor held a press conference to announce he wouldn't run negative ads he'd prepared against Mitt Romney—but proceeded to show them to the assembled media anyway—and then invited the press to record his haircut. (Romney spokesman Kevin Madden followed up with a serious of E-mails to the press titled, appropriately, "What the??!!")
"This is way interesting, isn't it?" says Judy Beisch of Ottumwa. Beisch and her husband, Bob, chairman of the Wapello County Democrats, are among a group of Iowans whom U.S. News has been checking in with periodically over the past few months. Edwards supporters in 2004, they had been undecided and like many Iowans were still struggling even at the 11th hour.
"I can't, in all honesty, tell you what I'm going to do when I get in there," Judy Beisch said. "I'm having a horrible moral dilemma: Edwards or Obama." And Clinton? "Too much of the establishment—there is such a political morass in Washington, D.C., that something almost revolutionary has to happen." She's predicting a massive turnout tomorrow.
In Creston, Union County Democratic chair Monica McCarthy, who last fall told U.S. News she'd make up her mind at Christmas over a pitcher of beer with friends, admits she's still strategizing.
"I want to make sure Joe Biden is viable," she says—that he has enough supporters on caucus night to win at least one delegate. But her all-important second choice is Obama. And that is just what the Illinois senator's campaign likes to hear. Obama is counting on being the choice of independent voters who sign up on caucus night and the second choice of those, like McCarthy, who favor second-tier candidates like Biden but are willing to horse-trade if their candidates aren't viable, meaning that they can't draw 15 percent support in the initial polling at an individual caucus.
One Iowa Democratic strategist said that Obama's strength caucus night—and potentially Edwards's, too—could come from caucus-goers like McCarthy because Clinton is infrequently cited as a second choice.
The GOP side is less complicated. A straight-up straw poll tomorrow night will determine the winner in what has turned into a two-man race, with John McCain angling for a distant third.
Several weeks ago former Waterloo Mayor Bernie McKinley told U.S. News that he decided to support Huckabee because of his consistent stands on social issues like abortion and gay rights. Huckabee's recent stumbles on foreign affairs haven't altered his affection for the Baptist minister.
"Yes, there have been some gaffes, but he's a quick learner and he'll do fine," McKinley said. (But if Huckabee's unpredictable campaign stalls after Iowa, McKinley says he's ready to support McCain.)
Tomorrow night will determine whether Romney's superior and well-funded organization can withstand the passion of Huckabee's supporters. And whether there will be a true "winner" on the Democratic side before everyone decamps to New Hampshire in anticipation of next Tuesday's primary there.